Ok, this is a long post, but lots of important information and questions to consider.
Why would four members of Brighton Council prefer to pay LAS $1,800 per day + expenses + liabilities + HST of our tax dollars for legal services rather than let the Ontario Ombudsman provide the services at NO COST to the Municipality?
In a recorded vote, Councillors Kerr, Rittwage, Rowley and Vandertoorn voted in favour of paying LAS for this service rather than having the Ontario Ombudsman provide the service at no cost.
Councillor Rittwage has commented to me that I am concerned about $330 per year and not other legal fees. I have already written about wasteful spending on legal fees and I will be writing more on that in future posts. Last Year (2012) Brighton Council spent $133,317.33 on legal fees. $41,950.33 of that was paid to investigate complaints against councillors. So why would these councillors want to leave us on the hook for unlimited legal fees and liability? The $330 is just the tip of the iceberg!
Well, $330 per year may not be a waste of money to Councillor Rittwage, but just ask any community group what they could do with $ 2,800. That is the amount of taxpayer dollars that have been paid to retain LAS since 2008 for a service that as Councillor Rittwage stated is “a service we have never needed”. Never needed, but worth $2,800? Really?
Why pay an out of town company every year for a service that you have never used when it could be spent supporting our community? Recently Council rejected a funding request for $2,500 from The Beacon. Ask them what they think of $330 per year! Councillor Rittwage seemed keen to support the group when they requested the funds, but I guess there was not enough left once the lawyers had been paid.
LAS is a subsidiary of the Association of the Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). According to the LAS website at the time of writing, “131 municipalities take advantage of this cost effective LAS program”. In order to use LAS there is an annual fee of $330 even though they don’t actually perform any investigative services themselves. It would seem that they are paid $330 a year to do a paperwork shuffle.
As stated on the LAS website “To deliver this program, LAS has contracted a third party, Amberley Gavel Ltd. to provide all investigation services. Amberley Gavel maintains a roster of experienced and trained individuals located across Ontario to provide required investigative services at the most reasonable cost.” The “most reasonable cost” is $1,800 per day for legal fees alone.
“Six of the eight board members [of LAS] are municipal officials…. The other five are senior managers at other municipalities… Seven of the 10 investigators are former municipal politicians and managers. Another is a lawyer who acts exclusively for municipalities and municipal associations. How willing are all of these people to side with the upstart constituents who rock the boat?” Anne Jarvis, Windsor Star, April 30, 2013
About the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman:
The Ontario Ombudsman is an independent officer of the provincial legislature who has been investigating public complaints about the administration of government services since 1975. The Office of the Ontario Ombudsman provides closed meeting investigator services at no cost to 191 Municipalities across the Province of Ontario. The Ombudsman’s Office represents far more Municipalities than LAS and has performed significantly more investigations than LAS. All services are provided at NO COST to the Municipality.
Read the Ombudsman’s second annual report on the work of their Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team (OMLET), which is solely devoted to upholding Ontario’s municipal open meeting law, also known as the Sunshine Law.
Read 2012-2013 OMLET Annual Report (click to view)
Sunshine Law (click to view)
There was recently an article in the Brighton Independent where the writer quoted assistant professor Timothy Cobban “If it’s just council trying to develop a group consensus or position, they’re not instructing any administrators to move ahead with a particular project; it still has to go through the democratic process of a council meeting where business must occur in the public eye“. This to me is a fundamental misinterpretation of how municipal councils should function. It is not just the vote to instruct staff through the passing of a bylaw that should occur in the public eye. The discussion around establishing a group consensus leading up to the vote MUST also occur in the public eye. If not, what are they trying to hide?
In the same article Councillor Kerr mentioned that “The thing that the proponents of the ombudsman conveniently forget is that the cost for the Ombudsman is not free -he costs the taxpayers of this province money every year“. Exactly! As taxpayers we have already pre-paid for the Ombudsman’s services. What Councillor Kerr is omitting, is that he wants the Brighton taxpayers to pay again for a service that we have already paid for. Why does he think that is a good use of tax dollars? Especially considering the double digit tax increases currently being considered?
Some Councillors seem to be concerned that the Ombudsman has too strict a definition of what constitutes a closed meeting. In fact Councillor Vandertoorn wondered if the Ombudsman was “clear on what a closed meeting really is” and Councillor Rittwage thinks that the Ombudsman is “out to lunch”. Even if these councillors actually had greater expertise in Municipal Law than the Ontario Ombudsman, I really don’t see the need for insulting comments such as these. This reflects poorly on the Municipality of Brighton. Do they feel that they are in such a weak position that they have to resort to cheap insults to further their point of view?
I asked the Ontario Ombudsman Mr. Marin himself the following question, “Some Brighton councillors think that your definition of a closed meeting is too strict and they would not be able to talk to each other outside of council chambers to see if another councillor would be interested in seconding a motion. Comments?” and his reply was, “I have no problem with that scenario. If councillors in Brighton are saying that they are misrepresenting our position.”
This is obviously a “touchy” subject for these four councillors, because when you listen to the audio recordings from the council meetings (see links below) you will hear that there was very little debate and direct questions were either avoided or refused to be answered.
Please take the time to listen to these audio clips (you may need to turn up your volume) as some of the comments are simply amazing! Also, pay attention to the way that the questions are answered as well as the substance of the answers. Why do simple questions on transparency and fiscal responsibility seem to make them so irritated?
Click here to listen to the Nov 18 discussion regarding LAS
Click here to listen to the Nov 18 question period
During the question period at the November 18th meeting, (click to listen at 3:15 sec) Councillor Kerr refused to answer my simple question. Instead he chose to make a rather insulting reference to “wife beating”. At least one other Councillor found humour in his remark. I think that this comment is highly inappropriate and I think Councillor Kerr should apologize accordingly.
Click here to listen to the Nov 4 discussion regarding LAS
Click here to listen to the Nov 4 question period
Reasons given for not wanting to use the NO COST services of the Ontario Ombudsman:
Reason – The Ombudsman is busy with other Provincial duties and would not be able to provide timely service.
Reason – Having the spectre of a fee, a person will think long and hard before submitting a senseless complaint that doesn’t need to be investigated.
Regarding timely: The appointed Integrity Commissioner is the same company that that would be performing closed meeting investigations. The first report provided was well outside of the required 90 day window. It is my understanding that there are currently two investigations underway that have been ongoing for months. So I am not sure what Councillor Rittwage expects when he mentions “timely”. Also, it should be noted that I mentioned above “it is my understanding” as I asked for clarification from CAO Frost and although complaints would be forwarded by her to the Integrity Commissioner, she was not able to confirm how many investigations are currently underway. As directed by CAO Frost, I have asked the Integrity Commissioner to confirm this for me and I have not yet had a response from them.
Regarding the “spectre of a fee”: This one is very wrong! It’s just wrong that a councillor would want to put up barriers to a lawful complaint procedure. The procedure already has a mechanism to filter out frivolous or vexatious complaints. If you don’t like the law, work to change it, but don’t try to circumvent it using money as a barrier. That is just an attempt to bully and nobody likes a bully.
Reason – Serious differences of opinion between the Ombudsman’s definition of a closed meeting compared to industry experts
Regarding definition of an open meeting: see above and since 191 Municipalities don’t have a problem with it, why does Councillor Kerr?
Reason – LAS has the experience and resources to do the investigations in a timely manner.
Regarding timely and experience: see above
Reason – Her guess is that if AMO thought that the Ombudsman could perform this role as well as LAS they would also make this recommendation.
Regarding recommendations: Probably the best person to ask about this would be Nancy Plumridge as she is the Director of Administration & Business Development for AMO as well as the President and Secretary-Treasurer for LAS.
Do any of these reasons sound logical to you? To me it seems like logic has left the building!
There are 191 Municipalities across the province of Ontario that don’t have a problem with the Ombudsman’s definition of a closed meeting, So why do we have four councillors that are so opposed to having the Ontario Ombudsman provide oversight and training to Brighton councillors???
We need open and transparent leadership that is fiscally responsible, now more than ever!